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Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Elves
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know that I can be a little obsessive about the fantastical humanoid beings one finds in folklore and popular culture? For one thing, I resist using the word “race” to describe these beings. That term is just too fraught with negative historical connotations in a context where we’re describing persons that look almost human but are regarded by everyone as something profoundly different.
Furthermore, I continue to be intrigued by the analogy between the D&D/Tolkienesque model of multiple fantasy kindreds sharing a world and the actual situation say 300,000 years ago with multiple hominin species sharing planet earth. (A layperson’s definition of a hominin is roughly anything more human than a chimpanzee.)
With my work in progress Shadow of the King nearing completion, I thought I’d share a little of how I personally imagine the kindreds that populate the faerie realm of Saynim. I have tried to keep three goals in mind:
- Be as true to the folkloric source material as possible.
- Work with as many non-European folklore examples as possible.
- Look for connections to what is known or might be postulated about the diversity of hominin species.
I’ll start with elves because, as they’ll gladly tell you, they’re better than everybody else.
ELVES (Homo sapiens pulcher)
Alaric Hall’s PhD dissertation, “The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England” provides a wealth of data about the elves of Germanic mythology. As originally conceived, they were apparently human-sized creatures, and more often took the side of humans than not. Hall also points out that in Old English, aelf was often used as a gloss when translating classical references to fauns/satyrs and nymphs.
For my purposes, I take “elf” to mean those fantastical humanoids that look most human, though often possessing unearthly beauty, and that are most likely to have a physical relationship with humans.
In this category I would place not only the nymphs and satyrs of the classical world but also such creatures as the aes sídhe of Ireland and the peris of Iran. In Cherokee mythology, the Nunnehi are elf-like beings who live high in the mountains. They occasionally venture among humans, joining them in their dances and appearing as attractive humans themselves.
In short, I imagine elves as a subspecies of Homo sapiens and therefore our closest cousins among the Saynim folk. Mythology is, in fact, chock full of elf-human hybrid children. “Half-elves” appear in Germanic folklore, for example, with the likes of Hagen of Tronege and Princess Skuld. In Irish folklore, we find Oscar and Plúr na mBan. Outside of Europe, there is also the Arabic legend that says that Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba from the Old Testament, was in fact the daughter of a jinni.
Elves are creatures of grace, subtlety, and powerful magic, especially when it comes to charms and illusions. They tend to conduct themselves with nobility and grace, even if they are not well born. The “faery courts” of European folklore reflect the elvish conception of refinement and sophistication. At the same time, elves are the haughtiest and most easily offended of all Saynim folk—and woe to the one who causes the offense!
In the earliest mythology, elves were generally on the side of good. It may not be that they followed a moral code that humans would recognize, but more often than not, they could be convinced to be on “our” side. In Germanic cultures, offerings were given to the elves to ensure their good favor. All of this changed, however. By the time of Beowulf (c. AD 1000), elves were listed among giants and demons as enemies of humankind. Now, elves are more often seen as a threat: they blight crops, steal babies, and inflict various diseases on humans and livestock. Interpreters usually attribute this shift to the Christianization of northern Europe, and that’s probably not a bad explanation. In Iceland, where the Old Ways are still prevalent, elves don’t have such a bad reputation. And among the Cherokee, the Nunnehi are still considered defenders of the people.
But then elves shift again in the early modern period. Starting around 1600, elves turn into tiny, comical figures: still mischievous, perhaps, but no longer the creatures of nightmare. Our modern conception of elves as Santa’s helpers or as cheerful shoemakers in the Grimm fairy tale come from this period.
In Shadow of the King, I provide an in-story explanation for this second shift from malevolent demons to diminutive mischief-makers. Perhaps in a later volume I’ll do the same for the first shift from a generally pro-human to an anti-human stance.
Fantasy “Races,” Again
I’ve previously commented on my aversion to the term “race” in reference to fantastical beings like elves, dwarves, and the like. My preferred term is “kind” or “kindred,” but that’s neither here nor there.
Now I’ve learned via Charlie Hall at Polygon that Eugene Marshall has worked out a way to convert some of my concerns into Dungeons and Dragons terms. Marshall is not only an author and game designer, he’s also a professor of philosophy who knows of which he speaks when he points out the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of the whole construct of “race” as the term has been used in the past few hundred years.
Marshall is the author of Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e. He replaces the longstanding template of “choosing a race” in D&D with a choice of both a culture and an ancestry. Your culture might give you a stat bonus in intelligence or constitution, but your biological ancestry determines things like height, life span, and special abilities like dark vision. His system allows for a multiplicity of diverse ancestries, and even provides perks for characters with a diverse cultural heritage.
As Hall writes,
With Ancestry & Culture, diversity is no longer a bludgeon that Dungeon Masters beat their players over the head with. Marshall’s system is permissive, rather than restrictive. Diversity ascends from being merely a tool to cast orcs and drow as the “other.” Instead, it becomes a boon from which players can draw their own strength.
For ten bucks, I expect I’ll be picking this up at Drive-Thru RPG. The excerpt from the introduction that Hall provides is nearly enough to sell me on the product.
For what it’s worth, Marshall’s approach is similar, but not identical, to what I’ve been doing in my fantasy novels. Characters have a “kindred,” a biological ancestry (elf or dwarf or whatever); a “chaos,” an elemental affinity that shapes their magical potential (air, water, etc.); and a “culture,” the nuts and bolts of the languages they speak, the customs they observe, the technology they use, and so forth.
Unlike Marshall, I’m imagining a situation somewhat like the prehistoric real-world earth, with various members of genus Homo interacting with one another in various ways. (And the situation here is looking more complicated all the time.) Not all of these populations are interfertile, so not all mixed ancestries are possible, and I’ve tried to put a little bit of science into the implications for those that are (cf. the nature of sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding in the lower Paleolithic). Still, I expect I will thoroughly enjoy Marshall’s supplement.
What Is the Greek Word for “Elf”?
I’ve recently found myself in a writing critique group that has made me think about medieval/D&D-type fantasy kindreds in the context of the classical world. Specifically, what would you call such beings if you were discussing them not in English (or any other northern European language) but in Greek?
The short answer: It isn’t as easy as it looks, but there are some options.
Steven A. Guglich’s Veil Saga is shaping up to be a centuries-spanning tale of magic and intrigue. The bit of it that I’ve been reading/critiquing lately takes place in the fourth century AD, which means the characters are discussing elves, goblins, etc., in the language of that time and place: namely, Koine Greek. (Koine Greek is halfway between the Classical Greek of Socrates and the Byzantine Greek of the Middle Ages.) I’m thoroughly enjoying the tale, but the language nerd in me wants to know: How does one say “elf” (or goblin, or whatever) in Greek?
Here are my thoughts.
Let’s start with the easiest one. A dwarf is a νᾶνος (nanos). That term can be applied both to someone with the physical condition of dwarfism as well as to the mythological creature. If you wanted a term that exclusively referred to a mythological creature, I’d vote for δάκτυλος (daktylos), a race of rustic nature spirits who were skilled in metal-working.
The closest I can get is μορμώ (mormo, plural mormones), meaning “fearful ones” or “hideous ones.” This is the term for a Greek bogey-woman. A more fearful version might be a μορμολυκεῖον (mormolykeion) or “wolf-bogey.”
There are a couple of other options here, though. A κόβαλος (kobalos, whence we get “kobold”), for example, is a roguish, gnomish sort of being, a shapeshifting companion of the god Dionysus. If you’re looking for a good Greek word for “kobold” or “gnome,” you can scarcely go wrong with kobalos.
A bit further afield, a κέρκωψ (kerkops) is a thieving, monkey-like creature. In mythology, there were only two of them, but the image might fit the bill depending on what your goblins are like.
This is where I started my musing, and it is in some ways the most difficult to pin down, mainly because people have different ideas about what elves actually are (mythologically speaking).
If you imagine elves as faery woodland creatures cavorting in a meadow, then you can’t go wrong with either σάτυρος (satyros) or πάν (pan) for a male and νύμφη (nymphe) for a female. (And yes, Greeks would use pan, plural panes, as a common noun.)
In English lore, elves, fairies, and nymphs and satyrs were all pretty much the same thing. Loads of Old English translations of Greek and Roman classics translated Greek σάτυρος or Latin faunus as aelf, “elf.”
At the same time, when Greek-speakers became more aware of the legends of their northern neighbors, they coined a new term for these fairy beings to distinguish them from those in their own mythology. In Byzantine Greek, such a being was called a χοτικό (xotiko), from earlier ἐχοτικόν (exotikon), literally “outlandish thing.” If the characters in Steven’s story are using this word in the fourth century, they are among the very first to do so.
If, however, you think of elves as more like friendly toymakers than eldritch wonders, you’ll probably have to default to nanos. If the most important distinguishing characteristic of elves in your mind is their diminutive size, you might want to consider…
The Greeks did have a word for a very small humanoid: πυγμαῖος (pygmaios) or “pygmy.” This comes from the word for cubit, a length of about 18″—although pygmies weren’t always that short in mythology. As I noted in a previous post, the term “pygmy” has some unfortunate baggage that makes it largely unusable in modern English. But for Greek-speakers in the ancient world, you might be able to get away with it.
So, if elves or goblins ever use their magic to send you back to ancient times, you can use this handy cheatsheet to explain your predicament to bystanders. You’re welcome.
Why Do Dwarves Have Scottish Accents?
Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura ponders why we associate certain (English) accents with fantasy creatures such as dwarves, elves, and trolls:
As radio and film adaptations of Tolkien’s works were released in later decades, you can see the slow evolution of the dwarven accent from the low British of 1977’s cartoon version of The Hobbit, to the more stylized accents of the pair of dwarves in 1985’s Legend, to the Welsh-by-way-of-Scotland grumblings of John Rhys Davies’ Gimli from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, right into the aggressive rolled R’s of Hearthstone’s dwarven Innkeeper.
“What you get is a sense of Celticness,” says Dominic Watt, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Speech Science at the University of York. Watt explains that many of the virtues associated with the stereotypical fantasy dwarf are also associated with the Scottish accent. “Scottish accents tend to be evaluated pretty positively,” he says. “Shrewdness, honesty, straight-forward speaking. Those are the sorts of ideas that the accent tends to evoke.” Watt also says that there are similar cultural stereotypes surrounding the drinking habits of dwarves and Scots.
He goes on to discuss the “culturally sophisticated” high-born accent of Tolkienesque elves, West Country hobbits, and Cockney orcs and trolls—which came about almost by accident:
Maybe the fantasy accent that can be most directly tied to Tolkien’s text is the working-class Cockney accent so often given to orcs and other sentient brutes in modern fantasy. Here we can look directly at the depiction of the trio of trolls in The Hobbit, which are written in a strangely modern dialect—a technique Tolkien rarely used, and later regretted. “In particular, he regretted making their language so recognizably modern. They wouldn’t say words like ‘blimey,’ for instance,” says Olsen.
In the later Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien’s orcs would speak in harsh, but basically correct common parlance, but in the larger view of the fantasy genre, the damage was done.
When you read a novel featuring elves, dwarves, or other fantastic races, what sort of accent do you hear in your head?
You Just Don’t Mess with Elves
Via Atlas Obscura:
The “elfin lady stone” was actually covered up back in 2015 after road work was conducted to clear a landslide near the town of Siglufjordur. The rock, which according to local folklore, was sacred to the elves, was buried without the workers even taking much notice. Until the calamities started.
Tolkien notwithstanding, the elves of northern Europe have kind of a shady reputation in folklore. Just saying.
The Elves of Middle Earth
Kate Horowitz of mental_floss has posted “7 Regal Facts about the Elves of Middle Earth” in honor of the anniversary of J. R. R. Tolkien’s birth.
An Elf by Any Other Name
In the world of Into the Wonder, “faery” is not always considered a politically correct word. It is thought too forward or aggressive, and therefore it is considered better to use euphemisms like “the Fair Folk.” Another option available to those in the know is to refer to various eldritch beings by their specific faery “species” or kindred: pooka, duine sídhe, etc.
Something similar happened in Iceland with respect to the ancient Norse álfar or “elves.” So as not to appear disrespectful, Icelanders began referring to these supernatural creatures with the euphemism huldufólk, “the hidden people.”
You Keep Using That Word…
Elves will make their formal appearance in The Devil’s Due, the second installment of Into the Wonder. Though I like the idea of people avoiding the word “elf” as (at least mildly) offensive, huldufólk doesn’t really work for my purposes as an appropriate alternative. “My” elves come mainly from England, not Scandinavia. So I’ve been working on a short list of euphemisms to refer to these creatures that come from the same Old English context from which I’ve derived the creatures themselves.
I have been surprised to see how little evidence there actually is for likely terms. Almost all of what follows comes from a doctoral dissertation that I have found extremely helpful in imagining how elves were perceived in Anglo-Saxon culture: Alaric Hall’s “The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2004 (PDF). (There is also a brief summary page with PDFs of individual chapters.)
Here, then, are some of the options I’ve discovered.
Terms Describing Grendel
In Beowulf, the monster Grendel is depicted as a cousin of numerous dangerous supernatural beings including giants, ogres…and elves. According to the author of Beowulf, all of these are descendants of the biblical Cain. Some of the terms used to describe Grendel might work as a description of his supposed kinfolk, the elves. (I should perhaps note that the elves of Anglo-Saxon England were a fair bit more sinister than the elves Tolkien described in The Lord of the Rings. If Tolkien had drawn his elves from England rather than the Vikings, they’d have been fighting alongside the orcs and trolls. Or, more likely, calling the shots behind the scenes.)
- maercstapa, “creeper/stalker in the marches” (103). When Grendel first appears by name, he is called a “border-stalker.”
- Caines cyn, “kin of Cain” (107). This term might work except that, in context, it can refer to a number of monstrous beings, only one of which is elfkind. Also, it calls for a particular theological interpretation of elf-kind that I’m not sure all elves would buy into.
- ellengaést, “powerful/bold spirit” (86). This term has great promise, I think. The meaning is obviously something the elves would take as a compliment, and it even sounds right.
- ellorgást, “alien, alien spirit” (807). Might work for the sort of thing humans would call elves, but I don’t see elves calling themselves “aliens.”
- sceadugenga, “shadow-walker/wanderer” (703). Probably the coolest option.
Terms Describing Elves Proper
All of the above terms have potential, but none of them apply strictly to elves. Let’s see what happens when we look specifically for roundabout ways of talking about elves as such. Unfortunately, there are no Old English narratives that feature elves. There are, however, a number of medical texts that give treatments for the various afflictions for which elves might be responsible. A couple of these describe elves in roundabout ways that might serve as a general euphemism for “elf.”
- nihtgenga, “night-walker/wanderer.” The text Wið aelfcynne (“For Elf-kin”) gives us this term, which ranks with “shadow-walker” on the coolness scale.
- hy, “they.” The first half of another medical text, Wið færstice (“For a Sudden Stitch”), uses a number of roundabout terms for dangerous spiritual beings before naming them explicitly in the second half. In lines 1, 2, and 7, these threatening powers are simply called “they.” I can see humans hesitate to name elves at all, and simply calling them “they” or “them.” Such a practice has parallels with Manx expressions such as “themselves” and “them what’s in it.”
- smiðas, “smiths/craftsmen.” This term is found in lines 11 and 14 of Wið færstice, where it refers to elves as fashioners of supernatural weapons to use against mortals (i.e., elf-shot).
Terms Describing Female Elves (or Something)
Wið færstice also mentions a class of supernatural female that is closely associated with elves. It isn’t entirely clear that these females are elves, however. They might be human witches. Or, they might be something like waelcyrigan (“valkyries”), which Hall argues are female counterparts of elves. Hall comments that, for the given time period, the boundary between a supernatural woman and a woman who has supernatural powers is quite blurry, so it’s probably not worth splitting hairs (see p. 174). At any rate, these females are called by two different names:
- mihtigan wif, “mighty/powerful women.”
- haegtessan, “hedge-riders” or “hedge-faeries.”
Haegtessan (singular, haegtesse) needs a little bit of explanation. The first element, haeg, is probably a variation of haga, meaning “hedge” or “enclosure.” Other Germanic languages have the expression “hedge-rider” for this sort of being. In Old English, the second element, tesse, might be related to Norwegian tysja in the sense of “faery.”
That, then is my raw data. What, though, am I to make of it?
- I’m thinking English-derived elves may not be quite as touchy about the word “elf” as faeries are by the word “faery.” (Their Icelandic cousins may well think differently, however!)
- At the same time, if the elves of c. AD 800 were still around today, would they appreciate the way the word “elf” has changed in meaning? How fiercely would they resist being lumped in with Christmastide toy-makers or mischievous, diminutive house-faeries?
- Assuming there is a need for an alternative term, there are some decent options out there. I’m personally partial to either ellengaést or nihtgenga. Furthermore, there are some possibilities from mixing and matching among them: haegstapan (“hedge-stalkers”), ellenfolc (“powerful/bold people”), etc., while not truly authentic, might at least be plausible.
That’s probably more than anybody wanted to read, but I suppose I’m just a stickler for getting the names right.
Environmental and Historical Preservation of Faery “Homes”
Whether out of respect for faeries, the environment, or history, a number of archeological sites and stunning natural vistas have been preserved in northern Europe, as Melissa Marshall describes in an article at Atlas Obscura titled “Fairy Forts, Dens, & Glens: When Places Are Preserved by Mythical Belief.”
In an effort to avoid the wrath of the fairies, communities of the British Isles and Ireland have protected the fairy “homes,” and as a result have preserved sites of great beauty from development and destruction, which is a kind of magic in itself. Conversely, more than a few lovely spots have become damaged and even threatened with destruction by enthusiastic fairy hunters.
Ireland’s Fairy Forts — more properly known as ring forts — are the remains of strongholds and other dwellings dating back as far as the Iron Age. However, local tradition holds that fairies make their home in these ring forts and terrible luck will come to anyone who participates in their destruction. These folk beliefs seem to only date back to the 12th century, but they were strong enough to allow thousands of ring forts to grow wild as the rest of the land was being cultivated for human use.
In modern times, folk beliefs alone have often not been enough to preserve these archaeological sites. In Iceland, protection of elf homes (elves being supernatural cousins of faeries) is codified into building codes and even made a semi-official vocation at Elf School, and yet some cynics avow that non-believing environmentalists might be exploiting folk beliefs to protect the island’s pristine eco system.
It’s a very interesting article that addresses the many conflicting motivations—and results—of setting aside certain places “for the faeries.”
The most recent development in elf-lore is to see them neither as tall, powerful, benevolent beings as in Norse mythology, nor as tall, powerful, sinister beings, as in later Germanic folklore, but rather as small, shy beings who are usually quite helpful to humans. Although they may still be mischievous, they are rarely malicious.
Germanic “House Elves”
One early depiction of this sort of elf is in 1812, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner, known to English readers as the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” In this story, two tiny naked imps help the shoemaker with his work. When he seeks to reward them with clothing, however, they are so delighted that they run away and are never seen again.
It is debatable whether these Wichtelmänner should be interpreted as elves at all or rather as some other sort of fairy being: kobolds, dwarves, or brownies, for example. The word, itself a diminutive of German Wicht, “wight,” which might better be translated imp or goblin. They seem to have a bit in common with the nisse or tomte of Scandinavia, kindly, diminutive sprites similar to the hobs and brownies of England. At any rate, due to the common translation, they have entered the constellation of images to which English-speakers attach the word “elf.”
Dobby and Company
The depiction of tiny, helpful, industrious elves certainly influenced the house elves of Harry Potter more than either of the previous types. There is even a mythological basis for their aversion to conventional clothing. In English folklore, brownies are a type of sprite that secretly tidy up the house and perhaps do other domestic chores. It is said that they always dress in rags, but are deeply offended if ever anyone offered them more suitable clothing to wear. Do this, the legends say, and they will promptly disappear, never to return.
These domestic sprites are often attached to a particular family. In fact, they are believed by some to be the departed spirits of an ancestor. Such is the case, for example, of the domovoi of Slavic folklore. They may be especially associated with the hearth.
In addition to the nisse and tomte already discussed, other iterations of this sort of “elf” are the Spanish duende, the Irish grogan, the Welsh bwbach. There are also an assortment of faery creatures involved in a number of “working-class” functions: the vazila of Russia takes care of horses; the bodachan buachailleen of the Scottish highlands is a herdsman while his neighbor, the bodachan sabhaill, inhabits the barn; the kilmouli of the Border region is a spinner.
Louisa May Alcott first mentioned elves in a Christmas story in 1856. Sadly, the publisher declined to print the story. A year later, however, Harper’s Weekly published an anonymous poem titled “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” which begins:
Beyond the ocean many a mile,
And many a year ago,
There lived a wonderful queer old men [sic]
In a wonderful house of snow;
And every little boy and girl,
As Christmas Eves arrive,
No doubt will be very glad to hear,
The old man is still alive.
In his house upon the top of a hill,
And almost out of sight,
He keeps a great many elves at work,
All working with all their might,
To make a million of pretty things,
Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys,
To fill the stockings, hung up you know
By the little girls and boys.
It would be a capital treat be sure,
A glimpse of his wondrous ‘shop;
But the queer old man when a stranger comes,
Orders every elf to stop;
And the house, and work, and workmen all
Instantly take a twist,
And just you may think you are there,
They are off in a frosty mist.
Thus, Christmas elves appear on the scene only thirty-five years after Clement Moore gave us the “canonical” depiction of Santa Claus himself. The depiction of these beings varies from story to story, but they are almost always shorter than normal humans. By temperament, they are cheerful and jolly—as befits Santa’s helpers. They usually dress in bright, festive colors.
We have seen that the powerful and good elves of Norse mythology over time became the powerful and malevolent nightmares of later Germanic folklore. In that vein, I need to say a word or two about the legend of the Erlking. As a distinct figure, the Erlking is a relatively recent addition to elf-lore. Even so, he has deep roots.
The Erlking comes from Scandinavian folklore, from a time when, as in England, elves had become depicted as creatures of dread. Originally, though, “he” was apparently a “she”: a deadly but seductive elfin woman. In his 1778 ballad, Johann Gottfried von Herder freely translated the generic “elfin maid” (Danish, elvermø) as Erlkönigs Tochter (“Erlking’s daughter”). In Danish folklore, old burial mounds were feared to be the dwelling place of the Elverkonge, the king of the elves. Eventually, this figure and his daughter were collapsed into a single character.
“Erlking” is a roundabout translation from the original Danish Elverkonge, “Elf-king.” In a particular Danish dialect, Elverkonge becomes Ellerkonge or Ellekonge, which was later understood with reference to the elletrae or “alder tree.” In other words, the “Elf-king” became the “Alder-king.” Some argue that this is purely a mistranslation. Others suggest that the change is intentional, a euphemism of the sort we have already seen when the superstitious avoid explicit mention of elves once their nature has turned malevolent. For what it’s worth, the alder tree has long been associated with faeries in Celtic folklore.
At any rate, in German, the figure is called the Erlkönig, the “Alder-king.” From German, we get the English semi-translation “Erlking.”
In the original tale, a knight named Sir Oluf is riding to his marriage but is bewitched by the music of elves in the woods. An elfin maiden appears and invites him to dance with her. When he refuses, she strikes him and sends him away. He is dead by the following morning, when his bride-to-be finds him.
The next version of the legend comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his 1782 poem Der Erlkönig, the antagonist is the Erlking himself. In this version, the Erlking preys on children and his motives are never made clear. He is a force of death, not merely a magical woodland spirit.
There are a number of English translations of Der Erlkönig. Matthew G. Lewis (PDF) translated the poem in 1796. A contemporary translation has been done by A. Z. Foreman.
Goethe’s poem tells of a father riding through the forest with his feverish young son. The son is aware of the presence of the foreboding presence of the Erlking, who calls to him to leave his father and join him in his faery abode. The father, however, believes the son is merely hallucinating. In the end, the father arrives at home, but not before his son dies in his arms.
Franz Schubert used Der Erlkönig as the text for a Lied or art song for solo voice and piano in 1815. Here is a creepy animation of that piece: